- Associated Press
Sunday, June 12, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the bell tower that rises over the city of Jefferson, state officials have approved over $80,000 to help community members meet a decades-long goal of hearing the tower bells chime.

Of the 14 bells installed at the top of the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower, only a few work. Every fifteen minutes, residents in the central Iowa city hear the strike of the Westminster bells.


What seems even more impressive is the hourly bell concerts that fill the town’s square. But the sound doesn’t come from the bells. Instead, it’s a recording.

“So here you got these 14 bells sitting on top of this 168-foot tower and it doesn’t play,” Bell Tower Community Foundation President Carole Custer said, laughing. “We’ve been living a lie for 50 years.”

Local businessman Floyd Mahanay set aside about $350,000 in his will to have the tower built, said Greene County Supervisor Guy Richardson. The money covered the construction of the tower in 1966 but it wasn’t enough to put a full carillon of bells on top.

The tower already attracts curious visitors who ride an elevator to an observation deck and view the vast, rolling farmland that extends over five counties. But Custer has been leading the fundraising effort behind the $440,000 project to create a four-octave, 47-bell carillon at the top of the tower.

Local donors have pitched in over the years to purchase 15 bells that are being stored in the adjacent Greene County Courthouse. The city, county and a local casino have also made donations. But last week, Vision Iowa, a state-funded program, awarded the group an $87,100 grant to meet the fundraising goal.

The Legislature typically gives the Iowa Economic Development Authority about $5 million annually for grants through Vision Iowa targeted at community attractions and tourism, according to agency spokeswoman Jessica O’Riley. The Mahanay Tower was one of five projects selected to receive funding this past week.

“We have never reached the point where we could afford to buy a lot of the larger bells to actually finish the project,” Richardson said. “This now will allow us to do that.”

The bells that are needed range from $3,000 to $42,000 apiece and several modifications to the structure are also necessary to install the additional bells.

It will take about six months to get the remaining 18 bells and strikers shipped to Jefferson, but organizers hope to have the new carillon chiming next summer.

“To have this type of an attraction in the center of our downtown district will be a huge draw for visitors to come and hear authentic bell concerts play,” said Peg Raney, the city’s Main Street director.

The bells will be operated by a digital piano, which Raney hopes will attract guest musicians. Custer said she envisions the bells serving more of an integral role to the town of about 4,000 people, in part by being able to provide tunes for weddings, birthdays, funerals and even the local high school’s fight song after games.

The community celebrated its annual Bell Tower Festival this weekend with barbeque food, live music and a parade. This year’s celebration is themed “50 Fest,” as the tower’s 50th anniversary approaches in October. But local leaders were more excited to share the project’s big development.

“We’re just so proud to now be able to say ‘we’re going to play those bells,” Raney said.


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